Monday, October 08, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Torture and Response

The discussion that drew my attention this week started with Thursday's New York Times article revealing that the Bush administration had secretly OK'd the use of torture even as it was publicly declaring torture "abhorrent."

Coincidentally, I told you the beginning of the story last week in my review of Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency. John Yoo worked for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, a powerful group that interprets the laws for the executive branch. Shortly after 9/11, he wrote a series of secret memos saying, in a nutshell, that during wartime the president's constitutional power as commander in chief trumps everything else -- treaties, laws, the Bill of Rights, everything. When Goldsmith took over the OLC, he thought this point of view was a serious mistake and tried to rein things in.

After Goldsmith left the administration and Alberto Gonzales became Attorney General, Gonzales appointed Steven Bradbury head of the OLC. Bradbury wrote a memo providing (according to the Times) "explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures."

A few months later Congress passed the McCain Amendment, which banned "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" treatment of prisoners. Bradbury issued another memo (secret even from Senator Jay Rockefeller, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee) assuring the CIA that none of the previously authorized interrogation techniques violated this standard.

The Administration Response
As soon as the article appeared, the Bush administration went into damage control mode. The President himself weighs in here. And Press Secretary Dana Perino fended off the White House press corps here and here. The message, repeated over and over, is: "We don't torture." The justification for this statement, however, is more than a little Orwellian. It is true that the United States does not torture, because the word torture is defined by Office of Legal Counsel, which has declared that what we are doing isn't torture.

No one in the administration is willing to repeat the OLC's definition of torture in public, or to say what we do or don't do in order to avoid torturing someone. But they are willing to say -- and to say again and yet a third time -- that we do not torture.

Reaction From Bloggers
On the blogs I heard a surprising amount of consensus in reacting to the Times' article: Discovering that the Bush administration lies to us and breaks American laws and treaties is not new. The question is what we're going to do about it.

The strongest words came from Andrew Sullivan, who blogs for and was once a fairly reliable Bush supporter. (He's still a reliable denouncer of all-things-Clinton and still calls himself a conservative.) But he's come around on Iraq and on torture, and has the zeal of a convert.

There is no doubt - no doubt at all - that these tactics are torture and subject to prosecution as war crimes. We know this because the law is very clear when you don't have war criminals like AEI's John Yoo rewriting it to give one man unchecked power. We know this because the very same techniques - hypothermia, long-time standing, beating - and even the very same term "enhanced interrogation techniques" - "verschaerfte Vernehmung" in the original German - were once prosecuted by American forces as war crimes. The perpetrators were the Gestapo. The penalty was death. You can verify the history here.

We have war criminals in the White House. What are we going to do about it?

And he followed up in his next post with:
When conservatives subvert the rule of law ... to enable torture, and when only one man gets to decide who gets detained and tortured, they are no longer conservatives. They are fascists. And they need not just to be defeated; they need to be repudiated.
What I Think
My own prediction is that Sullivan's view will be the view of history. Bush's old age will be a lot like Pinochet's. He'll have to be careful where he travels for fear of being extradicted to someplace that will try him for war crimes.

Watching the ongoing debate, I wish more people would point out just how cowardly the policy on torture is. We are telling the world that Americans are so afraid to die that we will toss all moral principles overboard if we think it will make us safer. That position is not worthy of a great nation.

I also wish people would stop pushing the torture-doesn't-work line. Whether or not something works depends on what the job is. If the job is to get a captured terrorist to tell us where the ticking bomb is, the expert consensus is that it doesn't work. But if the job is to generate false testimony, history shows clearly that torture is the ideal tool: Try to imagine Stalin's show trials or the medieval witch hunts getting anywhere without torture. So if you're running a government in which you occasionally need to generate false testimony in order to push the country into wars that have no legitimate justification, then torture works.

When Bushies Negotiate
Several years ago I was talking to a 9-year-old girl at a party. She was by herself, she explained, because the other kids didn't want to play with her. The other kids seemed nice enough to me, so I asked how she knew they didn't want to play with her. She presented what she saw as totally convincing evidence: "I told them what to do and they didn't do it."

I'm often reminded of that girl when I listen to the Bush administration. They want to play with the other kids. They'd love to have a united bipartisan Congress rather than polarized strife. They'd love to reach an agreement with Iran rather than launch an attack. They tried to get the French and Germans on board before invading Iraq. They even tried to negotiate with Saddam before bringing down his government and hanging him. And when interrogating a suspected terrorist they "start with the least harsh methods first" before resorting to torture. But negotiated solutions never seem to happen because the other kids -- Democrats, Iranians, Iraqis, detainees, our Western allies, everybody -- just don't want to play with the Bush administration.

They told the other kids what to do, and the kids didn't do it.

Across the board it's always the same pattern: The Bush people view themselves as reasonable because they give their opponents a chance to surrender rather than going straight into hostilities. They tell people what to do, and if those people don't do it, well then, peaceful techniques clearly aren't going to work. Time to bring in the cruise missiles and the waterboards and the accusations that Democrats want the terrorists to win. The Bushies don't want to get tough, but their opponents won't surrender peacefully, so what other choice do they have?

Random Stuff I Ran Across Somehow
When I was a kid, TV talkshow host Jack Paar would occasionally show tapes of black comedians performing before black nightclub audiences. Strange as that sounds today, in the Sixties it was a step forward in racial understanding. Well, I found this YouTube tape of an Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani performing for an audience that appears to be made up largely of Americans of various Middle-Eastern ethnicities. It's all part of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which still has a couple of dates, including October 19 in Fremont, CA.

I'm late to this story, but back in September Public Radio International ran a piece on how American and Muslim fundamentalists are working together to fight the theory of evolution in Turkey. Creationism, intelligent design -- you know the drill. I didn't think I could be against Christian/Muslim cooperation, but I guess that was naive of me.

A brigade from the Minnesota National Guard deployed for 22 months, a tour that took them to Iraq and was extended by the Surge. What brought them home? Apparently if they'd been deployed one day longer they'd have qualified for additional educational benefits. Channel 6 from Minneapolis has the story.

DailyKos blogger Puck Goodfellow gives us a glimpse of life in the lower class in My Morning Recertifying For Food Stamps.

I'm going to have more to say about Naomi Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine in some future post. Right now I'll just say that it's an important book. You can watch John Cusack interview the author here.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa warns Democrat Henry Waxman on the downside of investigating Blackwater: If he the investigation takes him to Iraq, a Blackwater team will be his bodyguards. Subtle, don't you think?


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